Kevin Prufer, On Sentimentality & Complexity

prufer1. Sentimentality?

My friend Joy Katz asked me to write a short article about sentimentality for a print symposium.  Sentimentality, she suggested over the phone, was one of those words we poets use frequently, mostly to denigrate poems we find icky or cloying.  Yet no one we knew of had come up with a completely adequate definition of the term, nor was it clear to us where a work crossed the line from emotional to cloyingly emotional.  Had our—and by “our” we now meant “our generation of poets” —aversion to sentimentality grown to include a deep suspicion of all strong emotional expression in poetry?  If so, where did that aversion come from? And did we have a double standard—that is, were we willing to allow for powerful emotional expression in the works of Wordsworth or Blake or Shakespeare, but not in the works of living writers?  Did we condemn our generation of writers for trying to achieve the very thing we admired in the work of other, long-dead poets?

We talked a lot about it that afternoon, I on my front porch in Houston, watching the rain patter on the roof of my car.  And then I went inside and got to work.

First of all, the definition I’d grown up with—that sentimentality in literature amounted to an expression of emotion (or the attempt to create such emotion in the reader) beyond what the (often contrived) situation of the text reasonably called for—seemed wrongheaded.  To illustrate this, imagine the following narrative from a Victorian tale I just made up on the spot:

Obviously, this is a scene ripe for sentimental treatment.  One can almost imagine the violins soaring in the background.  But is the narrative utterly contrived? Not really. Alcoholics return to booze all the time, with frequently devastating results.  A family might easily be reduced from security to abject poverty overnight.  Cholera killed untold numbers of children and, of course, Faith is perhaps right (and human) to blame her situation on Jack and alcohol.

Is it unnecessarily emotional—that is, does its emotionality go beyond what is called for in the narrative?  Of course not.  This is a highly emotional story.  Any tears Faith (or her son) cry are well earned.  Any sadness we feel for these characters is appropriate to their (all-too-common) situation.

So what makes the scene sentimental?  In my short essay, I argued that sentimentality often involved reducing an emotionally complex situation into an emotionally simple one.  Given the full sentimental treatment, my little story will ask us to respond with nothing but simple outrage and sadness. But it will never ask us to examine those feelings, to look closely at the social forces that would refuse a sick child medical treatment and make it impossible for a single mother to care for her family.  Neither will the sentimental story allow us to understand the complexity of Faith’s feelings for her absent husband, her mixture of love and anger and loss and frustration and rage.  Instead of offering a surplus of inappropriate emotion, it seems to me that sentimental literature often reduces strong emotion to a single channel.

 2. Complexity.

But this is not a blog only about sentimentality.  This is also a blog about complexity.  Today, I was sitting in Waldo’s Coffee Shop down the road talking to one of my graduate students.  She’s very smart.  Beyond that, she has an extremely fine ear for musical language and a sharp eye for creating startling images and unexpected metaphors.  In short, she is a talented and engaging poet. But today, I could not figure out what her poem was doing.  Although every moment in the poem was lovely—the experience of reading it was like watching fireworks explode all around me—in the end, I was unsatisfied, as if the poem were gesturing at ideas or images without actually creating thoughts or scenes.

“What are you talking about here?” I asked her at last, “I mean, could you fill me in on how you see this poem working?”  She quickly sketched out the narrative lurking behind all the lovely moments, explained to me who the speaker was, who she was addressing, described something of the poem’s context. Although I’d admired the turns of phrase in the poem from the very beginning, my appreciation for the poem was greatly deepened by her explanation.  “Is there a way you could communicate some of this in the poem?” I asked her.

“Well,” she said, “I didn’t want it to be too direct.”

“What’s wrong with being direct?” I asked her.

“You mean, I should just provide the narrative?  Add narrative?”

I shrugged. “It would help the poem to do what it sounds like you want the poem to do,” I said. “It would help the poem communicate.”

“But, wouldn’t that be sentimental?”

And it was here that it occurred to me—not for the first time!—that the way we teach poetry in our schools—the way I was taught poetry in high school!—is deeply fucked up.  I remember learning that a poem was like a puzzle.  If I could just sort out what each element in the poem symbolized—the window, the fly, the keepsakes, the light—then I could put them together and voila! solve the poem!  Or, put another way, I’d been taught to think of poetry as a kind of coded language, a medium in which writers resisted communicating with readers.  Poetry, I’d learned, is a kind of really hard crossword puzzle, but with a meaning at the end.

Of course, this is not so.  Poetry is not a secret code or puzzle.  Poetry, at its finest, can be a way we communicate complex, often competing (sometimes downright contradictory) ideas—the way we communicate to ourselves and those not-yet-born our sense of the universe we inhabit, the troubles we face, our joys and passions and hypocrisies and frustrations and perplexing double-mindedness.  A poem may be ambiguous and it may be difficult, but ambiguity and difficulty are not the ideal ends of a poem.  They are effects of the complexity of a poem’s situation and context.  Put another way, most great poems I know — even the most difficult, elusive poems! — communicate as directly as they can, given the emotional (or theoretical, or philosophical, or theological, or etc.) complexity of the poem’s subject and, perhaps, speaker.

By implying to students that poems are secret codes meant to be broken in the classroom, we do three awful things: 1) we alienate all those students who don’t like breaking secret codes; 2) we turn the act of reading a poem into a contest of wills against an elusive poet; and 3) we turn the act of writing poetry into a way of evading communication.

“Why would providing context be sentimental?” I asked.

“Because it would make things too easy,” she said. But she was laughing now.

3. A few ideas all this brings to mind:

  • Many of the poems I admire most create the sense of a mind at work on an overwhelming problem.  That mind might never solve the problem and the poem that contains it might be very complex.  In fact, that poem may require repeated readings over many years, during which my sense of the mind within it evolves.  But I do not sense in this kind of poem that the poet is deliberately eluding me.  Rather, I sense that the poem is communicating to me with urgency and, more often than not, its own species of directness.
  • It is interesting to me that I have equated sentimentality with a dishonest (or poorly conceived) emotional simplicity, while my student has (mistakenly, I think) equated sentimentality with directness or narrative simplicity.  We both think that simplicity is at the core of sentimentality, though for her the avoidance of sentimentality means being elusive, where I think she’d be better off just telling the story and, thereby, allowing it to exist in its own complexity.
  • Reacting to sentimental war propaganda, the Modernist poets abhorred sentimentality as a political position.
    Sentimentality, they said, was dangerous because it lured us into stupid (often war-like, often fatal) emotional responses.  Sentimentality swayed the masses into violence.  Today, we have inherited their suspicion of sentimentality, but not their understanding of it.
  • Is the opposite of sentimentality irony?  I’ve heard that said, and in some cases it may be true, though just as often, a cloyingly ironic position might be frustratingly simple-headed.  A poem that exercises unremitting irony might, in fact, be the cousin of the sentimental poem, reducing a complicated word to a single channel.  Perhaps the opposite of sentimentality is really emotional complexity.
  • Many of the poems I admire most achieve two registers.  They are direct and challenging at once.
  • “Tell all the truth,” E.D. says, “but tell it slant.”  At first, this sounds like an argument for evasiveness.  But I think it is an argument for linking honesty with complexity.
  • We live, I have heard, in a world of overwhelming data, of constant information, the endless chattering of cable TV and the quiet, all-encompassing buzz of the internet.  Sometimes our poetic response might be to float above it all, in an endlessly shifting poetic state of mind that reflects the data stream below.  Sometimes, our poetic response is to write poems that consider the limitations of language to even conceive of meaning in such a vast, confusing, ultimately (maybe) meaningless world.  Perhaps, because any meaning we impose on this world is created by us, our poems are, at their most honest, artes poeticae, examining the nature and limitations of language without dipping below the surface to engage with any (invented, outmoded, totalizing) meanings.  Art is, after all, the endless interplay of surfaces.  But is this just a complex argument for shallowness?  Does it force a kind of simplicity onto a complicated (emotionally vibrant) world?
  • Can the postmodern position easily become kind of sentimental?

[You can read my original essay on sentimentality HERE, along with contributions by the very fine Jenny Browne, Rachel Zucker, Sally Ball, Sarah Vap, and Joy Katz.]

[Before me, Brian Wilkie noted many of the shortcomings of conventional definitions of sentimentality in his wonderful essay “What is Sentimentality?” which appeared in College English volume 28, no. 8 in 1967.  This piece has definitely informed my understanding of the word.]

Kevin Prufer is a Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, Editor-at-Large of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing, and Editor of (among several others) New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008) and Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master (Unsung Masters Series, 2010).  He’s also the author of five books, most recently In a Beautiful Country (Four Way Books, 2011) and National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008), named one of the five best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly.  His next book is tentatively called Churches and will be published in 2014. 

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